“Overall, you did pretty well,” I say. “But just as a reminder: Failure to include any citations whatsoever is an automatic zero. It’s plagiarism.” I look up at the class—or rather, at the back wall of the classroom, which is lined with an old-fashioned chalkboard no one bothers to use. I don’t want to look them in the eye. “I do not want to hear any complaints if you couldn’t be bothered to cite.”
The students shift in their seats, glance at one another, tuck their phones guiltily away. The faces of at least two of them have taken on a grayish pallor.
“Once you have your paper you’re free to go,” I say. And then I start calling out their names, returning the papers front side down. I hate this part. Hate hearing the gasps of dismay as they see their grades, hate watching them flip through the papers like my hastily scrawled comments are worth reading, hate the frantic whisper of What did you get? as they gather up their things to leave. And most of all, I hate the sight of the most grade-conscious of them working their way to the front of the classroom. Right now Ava Moreno is threading through the ancient desks, one hand gripped tight around her paper, which she has rolled into a tube of shame. I eye her from the podium, screaming inside my head, Just fucking email me.
“Professor Bouvet?” She blinks at me with big, dark eyes.
I plaster on a smile. “What can I do for you?”
She unrolls the paper and smooths it down on the podium. She got an 83. I want to scream.
“I still don’t understand CFSR,” she says. “I lost all those points because I guess I didn’t do the bibliography right?”
CFSR. The biggest bane of an adjunct’s existence at Miskatonic University, along with the more common three-month pay gaps and lack of health insurance. CFSR is shorthand for the gibberish nonsense Dr. Nerezza requires all MU students learn instead of good old-fashioned MLA. One of his mentors devised it back in the ’70s before saddling it with the unwieldy name of the Chlomendeley–Fainswright System of Retrieval, which Dr. Nerezza has mercifully shortened.
I rub my forehead. “The bibliography is the toughest part,” I tell her soothingly. She really is a good student, but essay day always puts me on edge. “Remember, it’s a bit like a narrative—you’re describing to us how you found the information. Like, the experience of finding it.”
She frowns. “We didn’t have to do this in high school.”
“I know.” I sigh. “It’s an MU requirement.” And only an MU requirement. No one tries to pull this shit at Arkham Community College. I’ve already been through this song and dance once this semester. CFSR is a footnote-based citation system, which makes it a nightmare because only about a third of the students understand how to use Microsoft Word to its full potential, meaning I have to devote at least half a class every semester to running them through the basics and explaining what “superscript” means. On top of that, there are three separate pieces to a CFSR citation: the footnote, with abbreviated citation; a corresponding endnote, with the full citation in a byzantine format involving code words from some language called Enochian, as if both Chlomendeley and Fainswright decided your typical Latin abbreviations weren’t obscure enough; a bibliography using an entirely different citation format from the one in the endnotes and which requires students to include the country and city of origin for every single piece of information they find—for awhile I just told them to pretend that “the Internet” counts as a country of origin, but I wasn’t the only one who tried that work-around, and Dr. Nerezza has already sent out two emails this semester politely reminding us that we must teach students to follow the CFSR system to the letter, even when those letters aren’t available on an average student’s keyboard. And of course the bibliography has to be annotated, with step-by-step directions showing how the writer found their sources, “I Googled it” being the most common by far. But it doesn’t end with the citations. The paper itself must be laid out with a specific ratio of text to white space, with Dr. Nerezza actually expecting us to break out a ruler and measure by hand. I have never done this.
“Tell you what,” I say to Ava. “Send me an email and I’ll type up an example annotation for you.” It’ll be more work later, but right now I just want to clear the classroom.
“Thanks, Professor.” She nods glumly and slinks out of the room. Up next is Jack Boyd, who’s been loitering near the chalkboard tapping on his phone. I hoped loitering was all he was doing, since he’s one of the no-citations crew, but now he’s ambling up to me. Damn it.
“Extra credit,” I say, shoving my binder into my backpack. “That’s all I can do for you.”
“I really need to pass this class,” he says, hint of a whine to his voice.
“Send me an email,” I said. “You need to get this citation stuff down. You’ll be using CFSR in all of your classes here.”
“But I didn’t quote anything!” He waves the paper around. I hadn’t even bothered to read it once I saw there weren’t any footnotes.
“You include citations whenever you bring in outside information.” If I had a dollar for every time I’d said that in the past three years, I would be the richest adjunct in existence. Still not as rich as the MU president, but that’s academia for you. “Not just when you quote directly.”
Jack looks down at his paper like it betrayed him. “I worked really hard on it,” he mutters.
“Extra credit,” I say. “It’s posted on MU Online.”
Finally, blessedly, he shuffles out of the classroom. I gather up the rest of my things and dart into the hallway, which is choked with students as they make their way to their classes or to the library or to the student center, that mythical space of arcade games and vending machines I accidentally stumbled into my first week here. Never again. Seeing students outside of class always wigs me out.
I head up to the grad student lounge for the English Department, which doubles as an adjunct lounge. It is by far the most depressing room in the entire MU campus. The English building itself is old, one of the earliest to be constructed, and everything is this dark gray stone that the school has tried to brighten up with student club fliers. To make matters worse, the building isn’t your typical architectural cube, but rather some byzantine spiral nonsense that looks as if it were designed by a bunch of fraternity brothers hoping to put one over on the incoming freshmen. The grad student lounge is right smack in the center, meaning, of course, that it has no windows.
I push my way inside and am immediately greeted by that familiar scent of burnt popcorn, printer ink, and academic desperation. I’m the only one here; it’s peak class time. I collapse on the old mustard-colored sofa crammed into one corner, kick my feet up on the coffee table, and stare at the fluorescent lights. One more month, I tell myself.
My next class is in forty-five minutes. Normally I use the spare time to grade, but—wonder of wonders—I’ve finished everything, at least until next week. I pull out my phone, find nothing interesting, drop it back in my bag, and then lean into the thin cushions, reveling in that unusual experience of having nothing to do.
The lights flicker. Then they go out.
I am immediately plunged into an impenetrable darkness. “Fuck!” I whisper, out of surprise more than anything else, and fumble around for my phone, which of course has slipped into the nether regions of my bag. I blink, hoping my eyes will adjust, but the darkness has an unrelenting solidity to it. I almost think I can feel it pressing against my skin, oily and cool. I fumble deeper into my bag, running my fingers over the familiar detritus of my life—loose pens, a hairbrush, a couple of granola bars. But no phone. And then I hear something. A skittering, clicking sound, like insects. Like a million insects. I freeze, hand still shoved in my bag.
The sound stops. Blood pounds in my ears. My breath is as loud as thunder.
It starts again. Terror spurs me into action and I burrow blindly through my bag until I feel something cool and metallic and rectangular. I swipe my phone on and the darkness swallows up the screen’s pale glow. I activate the flashlight and hold it up, my hands slippery with sweat. The clicking sound is louder. I swing the phone around, catching glimpses of the room in sallow circles—a computer keyboard, a stack of literature textbooks, the refrigerator. I think I see something on the edge of the light—a sharp, reflective curve—but it vanishes into the darkness before I can catch it.
“Who the hell’s in here?” I shout, flashlight ricocheting around the lounge. “This isn’t funny!”
And then the lights blink back on.
The room, of course, is empty.
I sit outside Dr. Nerezza’s office like a sullen undergrad, two days after my little freak-out in the grad student lounge. The school sent an email explaining it had just been a brief power outage, the problem had been resolved, et cetera, et cetera. I keep telling myself I must have fallen asleep and had a stress dream, like when I dream about showing up to class in my underwear. I keep telling myself that, but I don’t believe it.
Dr. Nerezza’s email showed up this morning, though, and took my mind off my momentary madness. He needs to speak with me, apparently. About CFSR. The door to his office swings open and he pokes his head out and squints at me from behind his glasses. “Ms. Bouvet?” Doctor, I think, but don’t bother to correct him. “Yes.” I stand, shoulder my bag. “You emailed me. You said you need to speak with me . . . ?” I let my voice trail off a little. He keeps squinting at me like he’s never seen me before. Well, he hadn’t been chair when I came on as adjunct. Then his eyes widen in recognition and he says, “Ah yes, of course! I need to discuss the citation issue with you. Nothing major, you understand, I’m talking to all the adjuncts. Please, do come in.” He disappears back into his office and I follow, heart pumping. His office is dark and crowded with old books and stacks of yellowing paper, and he has the blinds closed against the syrupy autumn sunlight outside. He settles into a huge leather chair and I sit down across from him, bag on my lap. “I have some concerns,” he says, leaning back in his chair so that it creaks ominously, “that you—and others!—are not being as diligent about ensuring students are learning CFSR as you should be.” I blink at him. How could he possibly know? I certainly haven’t sent any student work up the chain for him to look at. I haven’t even had a classroom observation in two years. “This isn’t meant to be a reflection on you and your teaching ability, of course,” he says. “As I mentioned, it’s a common problem. But it’s imperative students do it correctly.” He looks at me then, and I realize he wants some kind of response. “I’ve been teaching it,” I finally spit out, still wondering how he could know one way or the other how well the students are learning. “Oh, I’m fully aware, Ms. Bouvet! Fully aware.” His eyes sparkle behind his glasses like some benevolent grandpa. “Doctor,” I say. “I’m Doctor Bouvet.” I’m not letting him get away with it this time. “Oh, of course!” He chuckles. “Forgive me, dear.” He leans forward, braiding his fingers together. “My concern isn’t that you’re not teaching it, but that the students simply aren’t picking it up fast enough.” “It’s a difficult system,” I say, perhaps a hint too defensively. “It was difficult enough for me to learn, and I only feel like I fully understand it because I’ve been teaching it—” “Well, there you go!” Dr. Nerezza snaps his fingers. “How’s that for student-centered learning? Have the students teach CFSR to each other!” I take a deep breath and don’t say what I want to, which is that it would be a hell of lot easier to just have them put their papers in MLA and be done with it. “I’m so glad we had this little chat.” Dr. Nerezza stands up. “Let’s get your classes to one hundred percent accuracy by the end of the semester! Remember, they’ll be using this system during all four years here at Miskatonic.” “Right.” I gather my things and move toward the door. “I’ll try my best.” “I know you will,” he gushes as I spill out into the hallway. I’m done teaching for the day but I don’t feel like going home and working on whatever bullshit lesson plan I’ll need to devise to reteach these kids CFSR, so I head down to the Starbucks out in the quad. I’ll admit I’ve been avoiding the grad student lounge. The place is hopping, as always, and I wait a good ten minutes to get my latte. While I’m sulking over by the cream and sugar station, someone taps me on the shoulder, jerking me out of my thoughts. “Alina?” It’s Lloyd Wainwright, one of the old-timer adjuncts who’s been slaving away for five cents an hour, or whatever we actually make, for the last twenty-five years. I only recognize him because he’d been honored at the welcome-back meeting in August. It had certainly been the most depressing honoring I’d ever seen. “Hi.” I smile at him, unsure how he knows my name. “You waiting for a coffee, too?” He shakes his head. “Oh, no, I haven’t ordered yet. I wanted to tell you—” He stops, brow furrowed. I peer over at the students steaming milk behind the counter. I really want that latte. “I saw you leave Doctor Nerezza’s office earlier. And I wanted—” Did he follow me here? I shift my weight, pull my bag closer to my body. Check the baristas again. “I wanted to tell you,” he says, leaning close. I take a step back, hoping he gets the hint, but he just keeps talking. “You should look into CFSR yourself. Not the packet Doctor Nerezza handed out. Go down to the library.” He lowers his voice. “Into the restricted section. If you show them your faculty ID, you’ll get access.” The restricted section? I didn’t even know we had a restricted section. “Okay,” I tell him, hoping he’ll go away. He nods and finally backs off. “Sooner rather than later,” he says, just as the girl behind the counter calls out my name and sets down a latte. “You can take that with you.” Then he scurries off, looking at his feet. Doesn’t even bother to order. Creepy. He always looked like such a nice man, too. At least, what little I saw of him. And then I think maybe I’m being judgmental. Maybe he just wanted to help me. If there’s some trick to teaching CFSR down there in the library’s restricted section (seriously, a restricted section? I wonder if ACC has one?) maybe he was just letting me in on the secret. He has been here for twenty-five years, after all. So I gather up my latte and my bag and head over to the library. It’s another old building, gray stone worn smooth by two hundred years of salted air. It doesn’t look like it’s from the 1800s, though. It has more of a brutalist air, heavy lines slicing across the brilliant October sky. The MU architect was certainly ahead of his time, I’ll give him that. Inside, the enormity of the space captures the hushed whispering of rustled papers and the faint clicking of laptop keys and sends them careening off of the frescoed ceiling. I head up to the main reference desk and pull out my faculty ID. “Hi,” I say. The librarian, young and pretty, smiles back at me. “How can I help you?” I hold out my ID awkwardly. “I was wondering if I could access the, uh, restricted section?” She blinks, consternation flickering across her lovely features. “Do you mean the advanced collection?” “I guess.” I shrug. “I was told the information I needed was in the restricted section.” She laughs. “Well, we don’t call it that anymore. Makes the students more interested in it, I think. And of course you can have access if you’re authorized. Just let me see your card.” I slide it across the desk and she swipes it. The computer blinks approvingly. “Okay, you’re all set. It’s down in the basement. I’m afraid you can’t check anything out unless you submit a formal request.” “That’s fine. Thanks.” I take my card back and make way over to the stairwell. I’ve only been in the library a handful of times; I used to bring my students in to show them how to track down paper resources, but eventually I gave up and just introduced them to the wonder of the online research databases. Which they still never use. The basement is lit with the same sallow fluorescent lights as the grad student lounge, and there’s a security guard waiting at the base of the stairs, watching an anime video on his laptop. He glances at me and says, “Professor Bouvet?” I nod. He pauses the video and slides over to the official library computer, peers at the screen, then peers up at me. “Checks out. Go ahead.” “Thanks.” Apparently “restricted section” really is the more accurate descriptor. At least he didn’t make me ditch my latte. I head into the stacks. First thing I notice is the honest-to-God card catalog system. No computers anywhere. I’m going to be looking this shit up by hand. And truthfully? It doesn’t surprise me at this point. I have to dig deep into my elementary school education, but I more or less remember how these things work, and it doesn’t take me long to jot down the index number for the collection’s materials on CFSR. Good old MU can’t be bothered with either the Dewey Decimal or the Library of Congress system, but I’m used to teaching CSFR and I figure out the file system pretty easily. The CFSR books wind up being in the far corner of the basement, next to a painting of the sort that hang all over the MU library: a muddy-colored sailing ship tossed about on some storm-ridden waves. The books themselves are all impressively bound in brown leather, save for the packet the adjuncts receive at the beginning of the semester, which has been spiral-bound by the on-campus printshop. I ignore it and extract one of the leather books. It’s a notebook, I realize, the pages thin, the whole thing wrapped up in a leather cord. When I open it, I find that it’s handwritten in scrawling, spidery penmanship that crawls in wayward patterns across the page. I flip to the front. Sure enough, scrawled across the first page is the name Percival Fainswright. I shove the book back on the shelf and pull off another—same thing. There are a good ten notebooks here, and all of them bear the name Percival Fainswright. This is the real deal, the primary source of all my teaching nightmares, shoved into the basement of the Miskatonic library. I gather up as many of the notebooks as I can and totter over to the reading tables. Part of me can’t believe these things aren’t in a proper archive, where I can only touch them with rubber gloves after a thirty-minute lecture on paper preservation. Even now the pages feel like they’re going to crumble beneath my fingertips. I squint at the handwriting, trying to make out familiar words in that swirling, elaborate scrawl. It looks like he’s saying something about a religious ritual. What the hell does that have to do with CFSR? I keep reading. Even with my experience deciphering my students’ incomprehensible scrawls, I have a hard time with Fainswright’s writing, which seems intent on obscuring his meaning behind a tapestry of adjectives. Still, I think I can pick out the basics. He’s describing some kind of Summoning (always capitalized) although the description does appear to fit more with a religious rite. I’m three pages in before he mentions the “Retrieval System” and references the annotated bibliography—finally! The annotations provide a unique dimension to the system, weaving together the historical and the personal, a necessary component of any ritual capable of resurrecting the ancient beings of our cosmos. “What the fuck,” I say. Immediately, I cringe, glance up—but the guard has vanished, his laptop still propped open, some anime girl frozen mid-leap on the screen. I flip the page. Instead of the typical impenetrable wall of text, I find a drawing, as spidery and thin as the handwriting. I can’t quite fathom it at first; it bleeds together into a mess of lines, like a physics equation. But then the image starts to push to the fore and something sparks violently in the back of my head. The world flickers, flashes of black and white, and my breath is tight in my chest. I think of darkness, and of a skittering noise in the darkness, an insect that only lingers on the edge of my vision--
I shove the book away and gulp down air, my thoughts buzzing. The library suddenly looks like it’s been passed through an Instagram filter from hell, harsh, ragged contrasts and a sickly yellow sheen to everything. My stomach roils around and the sparking in my head has become a sharp, constant burst of pain in my left temple. “Doctor Bouvet, what do you think you’re doing down here?” I jolt in my seat, heart hammering. The pain in my head throbs in time with my heartbeat. I recognize the voice immediately. “I’m preparing for my classes,” I say without turning around. “Just as you asked me.” I can hear Dr. Nerezza’s footfalls on the library’s thin carpet. The book is still open, although the pages flipped when I pushed it away, and that drawing—that creature—is no longer in my line of sight. Dr. Nerezza pulls a chair over to my table and sits down beside me. “That is a very advanced text,” he says, reaching for the book. “I’m not a student,” I say. “I have the right to access these materials.” Dr. Nerezza closes the book and runs his fingers over the leather cover. “Percival always was so keen on recording everything,” he murmurs. “What does a religious ritual have to do with CFSR?” The pain in my head is subsiding, thank God, but something about Dr. Nerezza has me on edge. Something about the way he keeps stroking the book, smiling a little to himself. “None of your concern,” he says. “You have me teaching it to my students,” I say. “I’m curious.” He doesn’t answer. I try a different tack. “Would it help them to understand the background behind it?” I say. “I always introduce it by telling them that you helped design the system—a bit of a personal connection, you know? So maybe—” I’m yanked from my chair and dragged across the carpet. For a moment, all I see is Dr. Nerezza sitting at the table, his expression blank, his mouth moving. Then I’m slammed up against the far wall. Pain erupts down my spine. I scream, shrill and wordless, and I am certain that my feet are not touching the ground. Dr. Nerezza stands up. He’s not speaking anymore. The pain wraps around my waist, pinning me to the wall. I can’t move. The migraine in my temple pounds harder than before. And my feet are definitely not touching the ground. “You have one assignment,” Dr. Nerezza says, making his way toward me with leisurely, professorial steps. “Ensure that the students use CFSR properly.” I scream again but my voice is swallowed up by the library. Dr. Nerezza sighs. “No one can hear you. Please stop.” “Let me go!” This is audible, at least. I feel delirious. He’s not even touching me. “The system works,” he says, “but we need manpower. That is your one job. To give us that manpower. But it must be perfectly coordinated. No mistakes.” I think of the skittering in the darkness again. I think of my students, leaving off footnotes and forgetting sources. “You’re trying to summon some kind of monster?” My voice echoes strangely inside my head. “With a citation system?” Dr. Nerezza just stares at me. I wonder how long he’s been up to this. Since the ’70s? Forty years and the most he’s gotten is some insects in a blackout? It’s the students, I realize. The only thing keeping Dr. Nerezza from bringing some inter-dimensional beastie into our world is the complete inability of eighteen-year-olds to follow directions. And then I start to laugh. At Dr. Nerezza, at my students, at the absurdity of the whole situation, me pinned to the wall like a God damned butterfly. I laugh even though it brings sharp static bursts of pain, even though I can see Dr. Nerezza’s expression sparking in rage. “Stop!” he shouts, and I’m squeezed closer to the wall. Whatever holds me in place compresses my lungs. My laughter turns into chokes and sputters, but I still manage to spit out, “I’m telling HR.” “If you do anything but walk out of this library and then off this campus and never come back, I will kill you.” I stare at him, at the long streaks of gray in his hair, the rheuminess of his pale eyes. Forty years, I think. “Give me health insurance,” I gasp, “and I’ll stick around,” another gasp, “and not tell anyone.” Dr. Nerezza scowls. “We don’t have the funds for that. We’re the English Department, not Engineering.” I figured it was worth a shot. I guess I’ll have to pick up work at ACC. “Fine. Fire me.” I slam onto the floor. Peer up at Dr. Nerezza. He glares at me and I know I’m getting away lucky. Must be too much trouble to cover up a murder, even for a tenured professor. I struggle to my feet, pain screaming through my legs. I hobble toward the door and Dr. Nerezza makes no attempt to stop me. I wonder what the Chancellor would say if I brought this to him. Wondered if he’d even believe me. Probably not. I’d find myself ripped in half or sacrificed or whatever for no damn good reason. Better, I think, to trust in the students. Forty years and not once has Dr. Nerezza achieved his scheme. Students are nothing if not predictable. They’ll never learn a system as nonsensical as CFSR. I limp up the stairs, through the library, out into the quad. The sky is still that perfect October blue. Students are scattered over the grass, enjoying the weather before it turns too cold, taking selfies and texting each other. In the lemony sunlight, I feel a flush of affection for them: all my little fuck-ups, inadvertently saving the world.